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Q&A: John Sayles

An exclusive online interview

John Sayles as ZEKE in Honeydripper (Photo by Jim Sheldon)

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Friday, December 28, 2007

By Patrick Z. McGavin


Honeydripper is the 16th film by filmmaker and novelist John Sayles made in collaboration with his producer and partner, Maggie Renzi. A lyrical, funny and sharp evocation of early Fifties Alabama, it stars Danny Glover as a juke-joint impresario who is desperate to save his floundering club from economic ruin. (Honeydripper opens December 28th in LA and NY.)

Since his debut film, The Return of the Secaucus 7, Sayles’ best work has examined the interlay of class, race and social values. The new movie appears flush with autobiographical implications that detail the struggles and vicissitudes of the independent artist. Arranged anecdotally, the plot develops through a collage of stories, monologues and memories linked through music and a colorful collection of personalities.

A filmmaker, novelist, actor and MacArthur genius grant recipient, Sayles has long stood outside the industry, content to live and work in suburban New Jersey. In a recent interview, he talked about his life, art and work.

Stop Smiling: What was the genesis of the story of your new film, Honeydripper?

John Sayles: There’s this rock ’n’ roll legend about Guitar Slim, an early New Orleans electric guitar player who was famous for missing his gigs, among other things. He was also famous for going out on the street with a long extension cord and [he’d] actually go to the doorways of other clubs — they’d be carrying an amp behind him and he’d play people back into his club. That plot interested me. Before people were known, before album covers, we didn’t get to see those [musicians] on-screen until the Sixties. There were only about three rock ’n’ roll films when I was a kid.

I really started thinking of those [historical] transitions, when everything started changing very quickly. When the talkies came in, there were people who were all of a sudden unemployable. It wasn’t just actors; there were directors who just didn’t know how or didn’t want to do that thing. What happens when that happens? Who are the ones who can get on that train that’s pulling out of the station, and who are the ones who either can’t or don’t want to? In music, I always think of Phil Ochs, a big-time singer. But as folksinging got less popular, he came out with a gold lamé jacket and did this rock ’n’ roll album that was partly ironic — and not very good — and he was obviously kind of bitter already. That was a bad decision for him, but when Bob Dylan strapped on an electric guitar, that was a great decision.

SS: In the last 10 years, the South has figured more prominently in your films.

JS: I spent a lot of time in the South. My mother’s parents lived in Hollywood, just north of Miami. I read a lot of William Faulkner, Harry Crews and Flannery O’Connor, all those great Southern Gothic writers. Then I read a lot of the Latin American magical realists, like Gabriel García Márquez, and all those guys were influenced by Faulkner.

I think my experience was a more personal one. I watched a lot of movies growing up. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were in 15 movies that were set in the South, because they did both Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, and Joanne was from the South. Then it kind of disappeared from movies, people were saturated with those accents, and I think in general people have forgotten that history.

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